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Improv and IEDs – Engineering from Hell

US History
US History
July 31, 2023
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Unless you’ve been living under a rock, or were born too recently to remember the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the previous two decades, it’s more than likely you’ve heard the term “IED” or Improvised Explosive Device. The is a broad term to describe an explosive charge made with nonstandard materials in homemade ways, often employing a wide range of skill levels and detonator styles to achieve their intended effects. Variations are typically denoted by the mechanism of delivery, such as “VBIED” where VB stands for “Vehicle Borne”

While IEDs are a cowardly terrorist method of fighting a conflict, one does have to admit they are highly effective when built and emplaced well. The sheer engineering some of these devices are constructed with, down to even home making the explosive itself, is an evil sort of cunning. With that in mind, let's look at some of the more creative examples. Though, for safety reasons, I will intentionally withhold certain details as I am not the Anarchist’s Cookbook or anything.

In the world of explosives, each mechanism needs four parts; the explosive, the initiator, the power source, and the switch. If you think of landmines in an old war movie, the switch is the plate that is stepped on, which hits the initiator and detonates the explosive. In the example of the land mine, since the victim stepping on the plate is what initiated the device, it is considered “victim initiated”… a booby trap.

One of the most ingenious pressure plates I’ve encountered was victim initiated, and my heavy leg did its best to set it off. It consisted of two 2x4 pieces of wood, with a battery core and a wire attached to it. The standard sort of battery, such as AA contains them, so they both conduct electricity and are dirt cheap to find. A chunk of foam is placed on each end-section of wood, then the other piece of wood is placed on top, with the cores facing each other but not touching. This is connected to the explosive charge and buried, so when someone steps on the wood the foam is compressed enough to let the cores touch and complete the circuit. Death and destruction made from items you’d find in a dumpster for free. 

Thankfully for my balls, there was a fatal flaw in the bomber’s process; the elements. Sure, it doesn’t often rain in that part of the world, but it happens, and so waterproofing sometimes slips their mind. For the cost of a garbage bag to cover the more corrosion prone areas my bits were kept safe.

Another consideration for building an IED is what you are intending to strike with it. One size and type of charge works well for flesh bags, another one entirely for vehicles. Given the size requirement for having enough explosive to damage a vehicle specifically designed to repel explosives, that’s already a deep hole to dig. 

A popular method against vehicles is called EFP, or explosively formed projectile / penetrator. By using a strong enough container to hold the explosive, while having one area be open or weaker, one can detonate the device in such a way that all the explosive material (as well as added trash to increase lethality) is forced out in just the right way to make it a molten missile. Excellent for breaching armor hulls, and a similar concept to how an anti-armor mine works.

Several years ago my Marines and I were sitting on the top of a cliff, watching a patrol of host nation military walking down the street. Just another hot and somewhat boring day until one of their men stepped on an EFP IED. In a truly impressive showing, the sand and dust went dozens of feet in the air, as did the soldier, spinning like a pinwheel. He disappears as the smoke expands… Only to still somehow be there when it clears. This defies sense, given the size of the blast… His fellow soldiers give him a hand to stand him up, and once he has his feet he immediately checks his privates. Upon finding them intact, he gives the Fonz’s two thumbs up and “eeeeyyyyyyy” which is repeated by his fellows.

Upon later inspection by the Marines to determine the source of the man’s good fortune it was determined that the explosion was massive. Large enough that if properly placed could have easily taken out the crew of an armored vehicle... But thankfully it was not. Buried far too deep, once the explosive was triggered a great deal of the damage was absorbed by the dirt and sand, until the host nation soldier rode a dirt chunk into the sky rather than a fireball.

My final example of the jury rigging from hell comes in the form of a safety device. While building these devices it is important to the safety of the builder to not accidentally trigger it by connecting the power supply to the initiator or switch at the wrong time. Ever the clever builders, however, some realized they could use your standard kitchen timer or washing machine timer as a safety. While the time was still counting down the wires weren’t connected. Or so they sometimes thought.

Not all types of engineering are the same, and with the proliferation of electrical systems in the world it's easy to overlook the basics. As the son of an electrician, I don’t have that problem. You see, metal conducts electricity, so if you fail to ensure that the wires you are attempting to keep apart aren’t both touching metal that’s touching other metal… Timers use metal springs and gears in order to function, and as they aren’t intended to carry an electrical charge, they aren’t insulated against doing so.

Suffice it to say if you only lose your fingers or hands you’re in a very small survival pool. Many bomb-makers are often apprehended with missing or damaged bits, because they respected the explosive… But not what powered it. On one deployment to a combat zone, we identified bomb-makers on multiple occasions due to their having the injuries in the first place.

To be clear, explosives (and electricity) are bold powers to be appropriately feared and respected. Use as a weapon against non-specific targets to cause damage and terror may not be the worst of human crimes, but it’s close, so I for one, enjoy each and every failure.

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